Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Lord Berners and the idea of the amateur

Writer, composer, pianist and teacher Peter Dickinson has published a number of books with Boydell and the University of Rochester Press, including studies of Copland and Lennox Berkeley, but most recently a fascinating series of interviews with and about John Cage entitled, appropriately enough, CageTalk. His next book, for publication in the second half of 2008, will be another collection of interviews, this time about Lord Berners (right, in a striking self portrait).

Berners (1883-1950) was not only an accomplished and highly respected composer, but also a painter, writer, wit, builder of follies and, famously, a man who used harmless vegetable dyes to colour his pigeons. For this reason, as Harold Acton mentions in one of Dickinson’s interviews, “He was always treated as an amateur, which was really a pejorative term in England.” This is one of many interesting themes in the book: the English have never liked polymaths or Renaissance men (or women) – perhaps it seems too much like showing off - and the word “amateur” comes with an almost obligatory sneer. Yet, as Acton continues, “it really means that you love what you are practising. Whether [Berners] was painting or composing or writing he enjoyed it very much.”

In another interview from the book, composer Gavin Bryars is quoted as saying that, so far as the work of Berners and Satie is concerned, “its ‘amateur’ nature is its strength…the independence of spirit and confidence in the quality of their imagination, and the range of work that imagination generated, are themselves sufficient reason for prizing the ‘amateur’ status above that of the competent professional.” Bryars maintains that “He did just the right amount of everything…if he’d spent more time on his music he could have become a duller composer.”

Bryars is almost certainly right. No less a composer than Stravinsky considered Berners to be one of the best English composers of the century. “Stravinsky took him seriously; Bliss, Goossens and Sauguet did; Lambert especially. Sorabji – one of the greatest British composers – took him very seriously…Berners was friendly with all the members of Les Six.” It seems his pastel pigeons have allowed many to get away with not treating Berners with the respect that others like Stravinsky were able to extend.

More from Peter Dickinson’s fascinating book over the coming months.

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